Friday, 13 July 2012

How to Evade Capture Top Tips – The Reality Part Three


Crashed Lancaster


If you’ve crash landed, destroy the aircraft and all secret documents, divide into parties of no more than two and head off initially in different directions (should have been decided before take-off). Endeavour to get clear of a five mile radius from the aircraft, searches rarely cover beyond that.

Few Allied bomber crews flying over enemy territory operated at low enough heights to consider crash landings. An aircraft losing altitude was usually due to damage from flak and/or enemy fighters which caused fire to break out. Some bombers developed engine trouble or other serious mechanical problems after it was too late to turn back, but these were in the minority.

Mechanical problems often resulted in an aircraft becoming isolated from the main Bomber Stream, making it an easy target for night fighters and ground to air defences on the outward and return journeys. By the time a bomber reached the height where a crash landing could be considered, it was either in pieces from attack or explosion, it was spiralling out of control (crew that were left alive often still on board and unable to bale out because of being pinned to the fuselage due to G forces) or it was minus any crew members who had managed to bale out.

A bomber left in a position to consider a crash landing was a very rare occurrence unless it was over the sea and there was no choice but to ditch (damage, mechanical failure or running out of fuel.) Coaxing a large stricken aircraft down for a crash landing in enemy territory without loss of life and serious injury (especially at night) was a massive task. On the night of 18/19th October 1943 the pilot of Halifax II LW281 found himself in just that position.

The aircraft from 138 Squadron RAF Tempsford had taken off alone just after midnight. The crew of eight were involved in a secret operation, SOE Dutch agents ‘Apollo’ and ‘Brutus’ were on board. They were to be dropped in Belgium in order to make their own way back into the Netherlands. The RAF were beginning to incur heavy losses over Holland on these operations and there were suspicions in certain quarters that something was wrong with SOE’s parachute operations there. (* The Germans had control of SOE’s Dutch section and were waiting on the ground ready for agents as they parachuted in. They knew that Apollo and Brutus would be returning via Belgium within a 3 day period, what they did not know was exactly where and when. )

The Halifax was flying low after take off. Squadron Leader Cyril Passy DFC and the crew members who evaded provided the narrative of what happened next for the ‘Report of Loss of Aircraft On Operations’.

‘The moon which was up throughout the flight was 5 days past the full. The English coast was crossed at 1200 feet and over the sea the pilot descended and crossed the Belgian coast as low as possible. No opposition was encountered here and the flight continued over Belgium on a slightly weaving course.
The aircraft was unable to find its first pinpoint and much time was spent searching for it. When it was finally located the pinpoint was lost again. As the time was past zero hour(03.00) it was decided to fly on to the second pinpoint near Herenthals.

This pinpoint was found, but as the Captain was not quite positive of his identification, and as no flak defences were shown here on the intelligence maps, he decided to make a circuit of the town to obtain confirmation of his position. He then turned back across Herenthals to come in again at about 500 feet and carry out the mission. As the Halifax crossed the town it ran into a box barrage of 20 and 40 mm guns which immediately opened fire on the aircraft. The aircraft must have been an easy target in the moonlight and the informants were of the opinion that the enemy had observed them as they circled and deliberately waited until they had turned and were right in the middle of the concentration before opening fire. The flak was accompanied by a single searchlight which illuminated the Halifax for 5 seconds then switched off.
The Halifax immediately sustained numerous hits in the wings and fuselage. The Bomb Aimer reported that the starboard wing was on fire and the Flight Engineer that the tanks had been hit…… The fire burnt very fiercely from the moment it broke out …...Flames were licking over the wing and the Pilot feathered the starboard inner engine to reduce the slipstream and pressed the extinguisher button. This had no visible effect and the fire continued to spread. The Pilot gave the order to prepare to abandon but realising they were too low cancelled it and ordered crash stations. All of the crew took up crash positions in the centre of the fuselage close to the rest bed.

The Halifax skidded straight across a field and came to rest in about 300 yards on the edge of a ditch. The nose struck a pole or a tree and this removed the whole of the starboard side of the fuselage as far aft as the main spar. The burning wing passed close to a haystack which was set on fire. The emergency exits had been opened and the Flight Engineer left by the mid upper hatch. The rest of the crew were able to make their way out by the entrance door. Nobody was injured in the crash.

……about a quarter of an hour after the crash there was a series of explosions. The first which was small was probably the Verey cartridges and this was followed by a violent explosion accompanied by much black smoke…..the wreckage burnt for 4 hours and only the tail unit from aft of the entrance door was left intact. The Germans removed the undamaged portion which included a new ‘D’ type rudder.'

The crew split up almost immediately as per their evasion training. Only the Pilot Cyril Passy (went South West), and one of the Dutch agents set off alone. Sgt. Joe Healey (RCAF) who was on his third night as a Despatcher in Training and had just been assigned to Passy’s crew for the mission left the burning aircraft with the other Dutch agent. The Bomb Aimer P/O George Ward set off North with Navigator F/O Geoff Madgett. Flight Engineer James Bruce, F/Sgt Kenneth Rabson (Air Gunner Special Duties), P/O Reginald Mantle (Rear Gunner) and F/Sgt John Grout (Wireless Operator) also went north together.
Incredibly six out of the eight airmen managed to evade capture via the Comete Escape Line and reach Gibraltar, but from the groups that left the aircraft, only Mantle and Rabson stayed together throughout the whole journey. In the early stages there were a number of narrow escapes and instances of pure luck for all of the airmen who evaded, as noted in their evasion reports (some noted below).

James Bruce was only miles from freedom when he was captured near the Spanish border. After a day the Dutch agent was forced to leave Joe Healey and Joe's evasion started with the help of patriots. He was filtered into the Comete Escape Line and had to flee a safe house in Brussels in the early hours of the morning just before a Gestapo raid. Healey was told that they had his name and picture, so with evasion now a remote possibility, he finished up using his signalling and communication experience to work with the Resistance on parachute drops. He was liberated by the Allies on September 1944.

The two Dutch agents (one of them minus his entire equipment, radio etc. which had been left to burn in the aircraft) made their way separately twenty four hours apart to an SOE safe house in Brussels. Operating from the safe house was Agent F2087, George Rudderhoff, who really worked for the Germans and was part of the mass Englandspiel deception/ German control of SOE’s Dutch operation. Apollo and Brutus were back on the Nazi radar again.

Once you are well away from the landing point - hide. Good places are woodland, bushes, a ditch next to a hedge or a haystack. Treat farm buildings with care. Surveillance of the place in daylight is advisable before any approach is made. If you land in a town or city, find a deserted shed, hut or garden to conceal yourself until it is daylight.

The reports indicate that these airmen followed the essence of their evasion training. What becomes clear is that they did take calculated and uncalculated risks. This is understandable in the situation they found themselves in, especially as the days passed and rations from their escape kit diminished. Surveillance of farms and houses before asking for assistance may have been brief judging by the number of properties mentioned where shelter was unsuccessfully sought. Many locals in this area seemed to be patriots but were afraid to take the airmen in, and sent them on their way with food.

Ward and Madgett, still in uniform, reached a Belgian canal and hid, watching 3 Germans searching the banks. The airmen were refused shelter at the first farmhouse they tried as they were told that the nearby bridge was guarded by Germans. Madgett described what happened next:

‘We continued walking due West parallel with the canal, looking for a bridge to cross by. We walked by one ferry thinking that it would not be safe to cross by this means, but when we came to another we went up to the ferryman, who was alone, and I asked him in French if he could take us across. We reached Tangerloo on the other side of the canal about 23.00 hours. Here we hid in a barn and next morning we were found by the farmer. I told him that we were RAF. He allowed us to shelter in the barn until the following night and during this time gave us food. In the morning (23 Oct- 4th day since crash) the farmer told us that the Germans would shortly be arriving for potato crops. We therefore set off again South West and about midday stopped at a farmhouse where we were given a meal. At 15.00 hours we reached Boisschot. Here we stopped at a house. We were given a bath, a meal, some civilian clothes and out RAF uniforms were taken away to be burned. Our helper then asked us if we had any friends that we could stay with. When we told her that we had not she got in touch with someone else in the village and that evening we were taken to another address.’

Rabson’s group had similar experiences, seeking help and shelter at a number of farms and houses. They nearly walked into a German checkpoint inspecting papers. The multi-lingual Cyril Passy who spoke good French and German also crossed the canal by ferry and received help within 48 hours. His mastery of French and German would cause difficulties later when the escape organisation thought he was a German plant.

Flying Officer Maurice Garlick (see last two posts) had reached an isolated and large farmhouse desperate for help. He had arrived at a farm run by Charles Decreon, the head of the local Resistance Group. Once Decreon was convinced of Garlick’s identity he agreed to help him. The fugitive had to be moved immediately as German agricultural inspectors called there frequently, so he was taken to another house where a doctor called every day for the next six days to tend his burned legs. The daughter in the house had to remain there feigning sickness so as not to arouse outside suspicion.
As the head of a nearby resistance organisation had been arrested, Garlick was moved around to various locations. After further treatment on his legs he eventually finished up working with the local Resistance and narrowly avoided capture by the Gestapo or worse. During this time he learned that the Gestapo had attacked the local Maquis in a wood and killed two RAF evaders who were with them. One was an air gunner on his crew, Sergeant J Davidson.

In September 1944 after liberation, Garlick was flown home to England. His is an amazing story that so typified these men who did their duty and more. A more detailed account can be read in ‘Shot Down and On the Run’ by Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork.

Next week. ‘Crash Landings by Fighter Pilots’ and ‘The Americans – The Daylight Game.’


National Archives

‘Shot Down and On the Run’ - Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork.

London Calling North Pole – H J Giskes

© Keith Morley


  1. So lucky not have sustained injuries when they crash landed. I don't think people these days realise how brave people were in those times. I feel honoured to be able to read about them. Thank you Keith.

  2. I find it amazing that these men managed to evade capture, its very difficult to believe that complete strangers helped them, and in many cases saved their lives. Good post Keith.

  3. Escaping airmen signed an oath of secrecy before completing their Escape & Evasion reports. They swore not to reveal names of people who helped them, methods of evasion, routes, or other facts that could endanger their helpers, and these men kept their promises. Copies of Escape and Evasion reports can now be obtained by writing to the National Archives and Records Administration, In 1944, all this material was secret and no resistance workers’ names were given in the official E&E reports. They were shown in the hand-written transcripts but were deleted to protect the identity of people who were helping the Allied Forces. Certainly Garlick was one of many who were helped by these remarkable people.

    “What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.” Albert Pike.

    Another way of putting it;

    “Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light.” Norman B. Rice.

    We continue with the amazing stories of crash-landings in this detailed post-thanks to Keith and are gladdened to see that the indestructable Garlick made it back alive if not completely unscathed after bailing out of his stricken craft. Such aircraft landings were rare and all notable. The WWII patriotic song ‘Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer’ (1943), by Harold Adamson and Jimmie McHugh, tells of a damaged warplane, barely able to limp back to base.Here is the final verse.

    What a show, what a fight, boys
    We really hit our target for tonight
    How we sing as we limp through the air
    Look below, there's our field over there
    With just one motor gone
    We can still carry on
    Comin' in on a wing and a prayer

    Most recently we recall the astonishing landing by Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger, III. (What must the previous two have been like…..??!!) This was US airways flight 1549 in 2009. All 155 people in board were saved after Sullenberger ditched in the Hudson river within six mins. Of taking off-the aircraft having struck and been disabled by a flock of Canada Geese. It became known as the ‘miracle on the Hudson’. These ditchings both in WW2 and now show how; “the miracle, or the power, that elevates the few is to be found in their industry, application and perseverance under the prompting of a brave, determined spirit” Mark Twain.